Vice President, Toyota and Hyundai-Kia, Adient
Location: Plymouth, Mich.
Education: B.S., chemical engineering, and MBA, University of Michigan
What drew you to the auto industry? It was an accident. I wanted to stay in Michigan. I actually had two job offers — one was with a cement company, and I would have had to move to Indiana. Then, I got an offer to work in the auto industry in Michigan. So I stayed. I did not have any intention of working in the auto industry when I was in school.
First automotive job: I started in 1999 as a quality engineer in an interiors plant, which I would recommend for anyone. It’s a great way to start out in the industry.
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Big break: I don’t know about my big break, but probably the best thing I’ve done in my career is try to get a really diverse experience. I’ve done a lot of different roles in different areas within the company. Just taking every opportunity I’ve been offered, really. Maybe it wasn’t exactly where I thought I wanted to end up, but just taking those opportunities to do something different and get a really diverse background.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? For almost a year, I spent the bulk of my time in Alabama at our plant and at the customer plant. It was great because it’s what I love to do, to be at the plants and to be solving problems and executing programs. I also had two little kids who were at home. So a huge challenge stress-level-wise and being away that much, but also, probably one of the most fun, engaging experiences as well.
You’ve been in the industry 21 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? We went through a huge transition when we spun off from Johnson Controls. It’s been an interesting few years, starting up this company with a lot of the same systems and people that we had before. Over the past two years, we have a whole new leadership team. That’s been a lot of fun — challenging at times — but it’s been really good to see our culture develop and mature into who we are now.
What work achievement are you most proud of? A few years ago, I decided that it was really important to me to focus on bringing women up through the organization, getting women into the industry, because I do think we have a lot of value and a different perspective. I spent a lot of time working with our Women’s Resource Network, and then also reaching out to other people within the industry, mentoring people within the company.
What do you struggle with? When I entered into the industry, and even for a lot of years after that, there was this sense of, “If I’m in the office longer than you, it means I’m more successful.” I reached a point where I realized I had to have flexibility, and if that means I’m working from home at night, or if I’m working with a Japanese customer and we do a lot of phone calls late at night, maybe I’m not up at 6 a.m. heading to the office. The further I got along in my career, I realized I can still do these things and be successful and have a lot more flexibility.
Describe your leadership style. I am a pretty hands-off leader. I like to understand the details of what’s happening on my team and what’s happening with my programs, but I still have a really strong leadership team that works for me, so I don’t feel the need necessarily to muddle into their business. There are also situations when you have to step in and be into all the details.
How do you bring your best self to work? I try to always be me, be authentic, be open with people and engage with them and allow them to do that as well. I think at the beginning, I tried to fit in a little bit more or mold myself to be more like the people I saw around me and how they behaved. The older I’ve gotten, the more I think, just try to be yourself and authentic and really engage with people.
— Alexa St. John